Israelis Put Family First

by on April 25, 2008 at 12:00 pm

I am invited to go clubbing in Tel Aviv by two Israeli women in their mid-thirties. They tell me they?re not heading out until 11 pm or so. Before then, one has an errand to run and a friend to see, another who is a blogger, has work to do and then may grab drinks with friends before we meet at the club.

They love the club energy in Tel Aviv ? what?s not to love? The restaurants and clubs are diverse and things stay open late ? New York style, unlike the majority of American cities that close early and have strict alcohol laws.

Yet, they?re ready to start families and like many driven American females I know who are CEOs of companies or professors at universities, hours are long and demands are high.

I learn about the single scene through their eyes, a few male Israelis, also in their mid-thirties, and a 39 year old going through a divorce. A mutual friend of this soon to be divorcee, doesn?t have any divorced friends. She?s a Berkeley graduate who has spent most of her life in Israel, has two children, is a Director at a technology company and lives a modern family life.

A few other married friends inside and outside the technology world say the same thing. My 43 year old friend who spent six months in my home town nearly 25 years ago is married with two kids. He met his wife at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem where he majored in history and she was ploughed through language studies.

They too have no divorced friends, although they both agree that ?times are a? changing? and not only are they witnessing others outside their circles facing separation but also single women in their late thirties and early forties who are going to sperm banks.

In a country that honors family more than it does work, many of these women have extended families who can help raise their children in a nurturing environment, a blessing that many single American women don?t have.

That said, everyone I met and talked to ? single and married ? felt that ?working it out? whether that be through counseling or moving through it, was preferred over throwing it all away. They?re not as quick to sign those divorce papers because of the fact that family is so central to the core values of Israeli life.

Says one friend who spent all of his life in Israel except for a five year stint in a South African middle school in his teens, “It is extremely hard to live in Israel without family. Family is at the heart of everything we do.

“It?s hard to imagine being single now without family ? everything revolves around family on weekends, holidays, even on weekday evenings. My wife and I both work and she is more driven than I am. At the end of the day, something has to give if we don?t have enough time with our children and it must be our work. What?s more important than our children?”

Part of this commitment to family comes from a long history of struggles and cultural and religious beliefs. Part of comes from Israeli?s love of children. There?s that old Genesis 1:28 reference: “sweeter than honey is a house filled with children.” This belief seems to carry a lot of weight in the Israel I experienced whether the family is religious or not.

I spent time talking to numerous Israelis in their thirties and forties. One 31 year old technology entrepreneur who exudes independence says, “I don?t want to be too old to raise my children. I?m on my second start-up, so I haven?t had time to dedicate to relationships or made family a top priority but that needs to change very soon.”

I ask about the start-up. “I?ll have to offload some of it,” he says with internal conflict in his voice. “Family is more important.”

I had another conversation with a Lebanese Christian journalist who is married to a German woman in her late twenties. He left Lebanon after the war when he was not quite 19 and only just returned about a year ago. Living in Israel for him is about as foreign as it was during his four year college stint in London.

While his parents now live in Israel too, he doesn?t feel like he belongs here. As a Christian among largely Jewish friends and colleagues, he doesn?t fit into any of the traditional buckets that have become the melting pot of this country: Russians, Orthodox, Mizrahim, Ethiopian immigrants, Haradim, Ashkenazim, the Bedouins or the eastern European Zionists who moved here for a better life in the 40s and 50s.

Israel is a land of diversity, each immigrant confronting their original roots, while also absorbing what it means to be Israeli. The latter comes with a great deal of turmoil for so many. How do they feel about living side-by-side with Palestinian fundamentalists who want all Jews dead? How do they feel about mandatory military service? Or leaving family behind in Chile, Poland, or the Ukrane?

I shared a long homemade meal that consisted of German, Jewish and Polish food with a family who has roots in all three. Part of the family was born on an Israeli kibbutz in the south and are now working at non-profits, part of the family was extremely urban, holding entrepreneurial and professional positions, and part of the family was born in Poland and East Germany who fled here for a better life in the 1960s.

One son had dark features and the other had Irish-white skin and piercing blue eyes. Half the family spoke English as well as my San Francisco neighbors and the other half struggled to understand me when I spoke too quickly.

The children showed me their homework assignments and some of the artwork they did in the 3rd and 4th grades. Their work was remarkable and everyone in the family gave them praise and smiled with pride in a way you don?t often see outside the Midwest.

On Saturday, we walked through one of Tel Aviv?s parks only to find parents everywhere with their children playing, walking, picnicking, cycling, rollerblading and eating. There were times I felt as if I was in a ?super large? nursery but the children were so well-behaved that if you weren?t looking for signs of family life, you may not even notice.

I think about how my own family struggled to keep up with annual extended family get togethers. After awhile, it was simply too hard and today, we barely see each other. Many of my American friends make huge efforts to keep those family bonds going despite the number of miles between them.

What seems to be common in my circles, are annual retreats. Parents live in one city or town, and siblings live in two or three others. Sometimes these gatherings are in their home towns and those with more money and time head to a holiday resort town or the mountains and rent a house or two.

It?s not quite the same of course, but its our ?modern way? of keeping family ties strong. In Israel, its expensive to live the kind of mobile lifestyles many Americans take for granted. Except for my high tech friends in Tel Aviv who have fat salaries, most Israelis are more likely to stick close to home and focus their attention on family life.

While two or three kids are not uncommon, the cost of living for a family of five is high. One friend?s $980 a month two bedroom flat in Ramat Gan would cost double in the center of Tel Aviv, a 15 minute drive away and they still can?t afford to buy a house. While my rent is more than double, their flat is on the outskirts, doesn?t have outdoor space, a designated parking spot, or an updated kitchen or bathroom. In other words, Tel Aviv is expensive.

Someone has to pick up their kids at 1 pm and if both parents work, it?s a tough schedule, particularly if there?s only one vehicle. My $21K Honda Accord costs $44K in Israel, so its no wonder that many families use public transportation or opt for only one car.

On my way to the airport, I watched my friend fill up his car for 265 shekels. That?s roughly 24-25 shekels a gallon (nearly $6) for a four cylinder Ford.

Israeli friends sent me to trendy shopping areas, such as Shenkin Street (a bit like NY?s SoHo for the youth), Shabazi Street and the Port of Tel Aviv (largely high-end designers). Even if the dollar was still at 4.5, it would have been too expensive to bother. Their Top Shop-like retail stores were also extremely expensive so I ended up leaving Israel with nothing but mud from the Dead Sea.

Some things are subsidized in ways I?ve never seen in my lifetime in the states, like healthcare and education. They don?t stress over losing their house if their kid needs a serious operation, because their out-of-pocket is manageable.

People also prioritize and are not sucked into ?retail therapy? like so many families in the states. They think of their children first and go without if it means giving their children a better life. It?s not unlike the mentality my first generation American immigrant grandparents had, which is exactly what Israel?s current generation is going through today.

While family isn?t a central part of my life in the same way it is for my Israeli friends, I it is a value I hold dear. Sadly, like many people I know, it is much harder to stay connected to family than in places like Israel, Europe and even South Africa, where it is not uncommon to have granny flats in backyards for elderly grandparents when the time comes.

When family is an integral part of the culture, it is automatically placed higher on the ladder than the values that currently sit on the top in the states, like education, our careers and independence. American?s hunger for freedom and living life ?our own way? allows us to explore the world, innovate and get rich, but it has a price.

We also haven?t faced the same hardships ? and on a regular basis ? as Israelis have. If you think about their day-to-day realities and compare them to the United States, its no wonder family is high on the list. Just think about the soar of marriages and pregnancies in the states soon after 9/11. It?s something to think about isn?t it?